Efforts have begun to move 279 asylum seekers still living in tents to alternative accommodation.

Twenty of the 175 international protection applicants living in tents on the site of the Lissywollen Direct Provision Centre site in Athlone in Co Westmeath were moved out today.

A spokesperson for the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth said that "the remaining residents will be prioritised for moves over the coming week".

Gerry Callaghan, Chair of New Horizon Refugee and Asylum Seeker Support in Athlone, confirmed that 20 people had been moved out today.

"New Horizon have been working with residents in tents since they were occupied in late September," Mr Callaghan said.

"Physical conditions had seriously deteriorated as the weather got colder and wetter," Mr Callaghan said: "We very much welcome the start of the transfer of residents to more suitable accommodation and look forward to the speedy completion of the transfer."

The department spokesperson also confirmed its intention to move the 104 people living in tents on the site of the Knockalisheen Direct Provision Centre in Co Clare to alternative accommodation within the coming week.

The department "is working urgently across Government and with agencies, NGOs and local authorities to bring new accommodation on board to meet State's humanitarian responsibilities," the spokesperson said.

Earlier this week, 40 asylum seekers who had spent more than 15 weeks living in a tent in Tralee were moved to alternative accommodation.

A camp to temporarily house largely Ukrainian women and child refugees closed in Gormanston in Co Meath in October.

The Clare and Westmeath camps are the final two tented facilities still being used as a form of state provided accommodation for those seeking refuge in Ireland.

Doras, the Limerick-based NGO which works to support and promote the human rights of asylum seekers, refugees and migrants, also welcomed the news.

CEO John Lannon said he hoped suitable alternative accommodation will be found for all the people currently in tents in Athlone and Knockalisheen in the coming week.

"We visited Knockalisheen yesterday and spoke to residents who described how living in the tents is becoming increasingly difficult as winter sets in," Mr Lannon said.

"They talked about the cold coming up through the floor, having to walk across an open area to the toilets at night in the rain and wind, lack of personal space and storage for personal items and clothes, and other difficulties," Mr Lannon said.

"Conditions are becoming quite intolerable and are having a negative impact on the physical and mental health of people living in the tents."

Mr Lannon said that "placing people in such conditions should only ever be done as a short-term measure, and as an absolute last resort."

He added: "We acknowledge the huge challenges faced by the State in finding accommodation for international protection applicants and beneficiaries of temporary protection from Ukraine now.

"Nonetheless placing protection applicants in tents means we are failing to meet our obligations to provide them with a dignified standard of living, as set out in the Reception Conditions Directive. It also means we are placing people who are already quite vulnerable at an unacceptable level of risk."

In October, the Irish Refugee Council cited "the use of tents" as part of what it described as "plummeting standards in accommodation" for intentional protection applicants and said it was "extremely concerned".

Earlier this week, a department spokesperson said there were no plans to move any more international protection applicants into tented accommodation.